‘About Alex’ movie review: ‘The Big Chill’ gets a status update


In “About Alex,” a group of buddies reunite years after graduating from Yale, but their friendships have frayed with time, despite seeming intact by social media standards. (Jami Saunders/Screen Media Films)

In the age of Facebook, friendship takes on new meanings. What would have been an acquaintance 20 years ago is now a person who knows that you had steak frites last night at that new French place and wore a blue bikini on your Hawaiian vacation. We might have hundreds or thousands of people following our every move online, but how many of them do we see on a regular basis? And how many would we want to?

That’s one theme of “About Alex,” the writing and directorial debut of Jesse Zwick (son of filmmaker Ed Zwick, who co-produced the movie). The plot is so similar to “The Big Chill” that it almost could be called a remake, except that it isn’t nearly as funny, it follows millennials instead of baby boomers and the characters tweet.

Even the suicidal Alex of the movie’s title bids farewell to the cruel world with a Shakespearean status update. “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man,” he taps out on his smartphone while sitting in a bathtub full of water, wearing a suit. Moments later, off-screen, he slits his wrists. But unlike Alex from “The Big Chill,” this Alex (played by Jason Ritter) survives. He’s surprised to return from the hospital and find a welcoming committee in the remote Upstate New York house he inherited. His best friends from Yale — who are now more like “friends” — have come to visit.

“Don’t tell me we’re having a party in honor of my suicide,” he says, and he has a point.

The cast ably pulls off the low-key drama and the script’s periodic witticisms, especially Aubrey Plaza as Sarah, the overworked tax attorney, and Max Greenfield as misanthropic PhD student Josh. The pair are sleeping together, even though she’s in love with Isaac (Max Minghella), who’s with the younger Kate (Jane Levy), and Josh is pining for Siri (Maggie Grace), who is living with Ben (Nate Parker).

Ben is the golden boy of the crew. The youngest author to ever be published in the New Yorker, he and Siri share a Brooklyn apartment that’s Instagram-ready. Of course, it isn’t so easy to throw a warmly glowing filter on reality; he’s been hiding his writer’s block from his friends while his relationship is in near ruins.

Many of the characters appear to be suffering from a low level of depression wrought by the fact that the future they envisioned doesn’t line up to the present they’re living. And so they mostly bicker — especially the impossible-to-please Josh — when they aren’t swapping partners, eating restaurant-caliber meals, smoking marijuana or dancing to music played on a record player. It’s clear that even though this group has been interconnected, thanks to social media, since graduating, they don’t seem to know much about one another.

But “About Alex” isn’t just about the faux-closeness of Facebook. The movie might have been stronger had it mined that theme more thoroughly, rather than floating the idea without ever fully following through. But like the online medium it fitfully critiques, the movie never digs very deep. Maybe that’s the point, given that the title seems like an intentional misnomer. This isn’t some well-drawn portrait of a hopeless young man so much as a cursory glimpse of fading intimacy.

★ ★

R. At West End Cinema. Contains language, drug use and sexual situations. 96 minutes.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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